In the course of his first official visit to the US in mid-August 2020, the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi assured his American allies of his commitment to a mutually beneficial exchange. Yet, despite a series of goodwill gestures, diplomatic handshakes, investment deals and photo-ops, the long-term success of the US-Iraq partnership remains contingent on Al-Kadhimi’s efficiency in tackling the security concerns voiced by his counterparts. As signaled by both President Donald Trump and the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, any further engagement with Iraq would depend to a large extent on the Commander-in-Chief’s ability to eliminate threats to US facilities and personnel on the ground emanating from a myriad of para-state militant groups with close ties to Iran. Nevertheless, given the institutional affiliation of some these actors with the state-sanctioned paramilitary umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the Prime Minister would need to choose his battles wisely to avoid an ill-timed escalation on the domestic front.
The assassination of Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani and PMU Chief of Staff Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis on January 3, 2020, by a US drone strike has thrown especially the Iran-leaning militant factions in Iraq into an existential crisis. The veneer of legality obtained by these militants’ attachment to the Popular Mobilization Commission (PMC) presented no longer a viable insurance policy. Given the territorial sovereign’s failure to prevent the targeting of the PMU’s most prominent strategist, the factions questioning the rationale of state institutionalization became more vocal. Outsourcing the ‘responsibility to resist’ to less established players such as the only recently promoted group Usbat al-Tha’irin (League of Revolutionaries), Iran’s embedded allies have been seeking to maintain plausible deniability, without jeopardizing their working relationship with the host bureaucracy.
Having asserted themselves in the debate over Al-Muhandis’ succession by imposing their choice of former Kata’ib Hezbollah secretary-general Abdul Aziz Al-Muhammadawi, alias “Abu Fadak,” the resistance leaning elements within the PMU appeared to be winning the upper hand. Though the follow-up split-off of the factions referred to as Hashd al-Marji‘i affiliated with Iraq’s Shiite religious authorities (marjaʿiyya) challenged their self-indulgent logic. The stakes of alienating further elements of the paramilitary structure sensitized them to the side-effects of disintegration.
More importantly, in addition to the legal-rational legitimacy obtained through the ‘hashd law,’ members of the PMU have not ceased to base their normative claims on the historic fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani. Therefore, a PMU without the so-called shrine brigades will have major difficulties to draw on the higher mandate of a holy warrior in service of Iraq’s religious establishment. Having rejected the appointment of Abu Fadak from the beginning, on April 23, these marjaʿiyya formations announced their wish to explore a separate path, which has placed Al-Muhandis’ successor Abu Fadak in a tricky situation. Even his battle-hardened reputation as a veteran of both the Badr Organisation and Kata’ib Hezbollah might not prove sufficient to sustain the state-oriented vision of Al-Muhandis.
The new Chief of Staff and his extra-institutional backers are thereby confronted with the PMU’s evolutionary dilemma. Those among the organization, who were mimicking the behavior of a state actor had become more inclined to tolerate the military chain of command. Meanwhile, the often-criticized US interference in the country’s affairs had ushered some of the pro-resistance factions to push against state compliance. A lot of those resistance leaders believe that the Iraqi state is still not strong enough to defend its sovereignty without the support of covert resistance operations.
Especially with the new Prime Minister demonstrating his determination to facilitate a more constructive relationship with the PMU’s leadership, any recognized factions sabotaging the Iraqi government’s engagement with its western partners will have to choose a more digestible way to convey their objections. In the course of the strategic dialogue with the US, the difficulty for them would be in finding a face-saving option, which would not spoil the institutional affiliation and credibility of their strategically embedded advocates.
The PMU’s symbolic distancing from Kata’ib Hezbollah’s defamation campaign against Al-Kadhimi and the Iraqi Intelligence Service revealed that resistance leaning elements within the heterogeneous structure could hardly keep their hard-won institutional benefits without abandoning the openly confrontational course. Such PMU figures would find it harder to reconcile their general sympathies for the resistance cause with the lucrative vocation of state security officials. Despite not yet satisfying the wide expectations for immediate containment of Iran-backed militants after the brutal assassination of the renowned security expert Hisham Al-Hashemi, Al-Kadhimi’s cautious targeting of criminally implicated Kata’ib Al-Hezbollah elements attempted in June 2020 demonstrates that the PM is already testing the waters and gradually increasing the institutional pressure onto the PMU’s resistance current.
Furthermore, as long the PMU Chairman Faleh Al-Fayyadh is publicly preaching full compliance with state policies, any sub-ordinate challenging the established equilibrium with the PM’s office would necessarily prove the leadership as either incompetent or unreliable. Politically visible players would thus suffer the reputational damage of making false claims while allowing rogue elements to pursue a controversial ideology at the expense of the state’s monopoly on violence.
Though in order not to compromise Al-Kadhemi’s credibility as an independent Iraqi nationalist, the US should refrain from framing the taming of PMU affiliates as a precondition for sustained bilateral cooperation. On the contrary, the Prime Minister should be encouraged to claim full ownership over the security reform process in his capacity of Commander in Chief, whose foremost responsibility is to ensure compliance with an Iraq-first foreign policy.
Any divergent rhetoric can invite destructive whataboutism as often employed by pro-Iran forces who tend to dismiss top-down disciplinary measures as orders dictated by a foreign occupier. To break this vicious circle, the Prime Minister should be given a free hand to continue obstructing any blurring of the lines between the PMU’s militant units on the loose and those injected within the state’s framework, which continue to penetrate Iraq’s political establishment and legal institutions.